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I am Lawrence Lessig (academic, activist, now collaborator with DEMAND PROGRESS). AMA!

Jul 2nd 2013 by lessig • 35 Questions • 1986 Points

I am a co-founder of Creative Commons, and the founder of Rootstrikers. But I was not the first #Rootstriker.

It was Aaron Swartz http://www.aaronsw.com/ who initially persuaded me that none of us were going to make progress on a wide range of issues — from Internet freedom to climate change — until we found a way to address the corruption within our government.

As I described in a lecture after Aaron's death http://www.law.harvard.edu/news/2013/02/lessig-chair-lecture-aarons-laws.html, that was in January 2007. In June that year, I announced that I was putting my work on Free Culture aside, and taking up the challenge of building a movement to fight that corruption.

For the first couple years, Aaron worked with me — first, as a founding board member of Change Congress, and then with Fix Congress First! But the urgency and opportunity of an Obama presidency led him away from a fight focused on corruption alone. That was the birth of Demand Progress; Fix Congress First! then became Rootstrikers.

Today, I am incredibly honored and happy to let you know that these organizations have now joined leadership to become allies in our respective fights for a better, truer democracy.

Ask me anything! And here are some ways you can help:

1) Become a Rootstriker and join the fight to end the corrupting influence of private money over American politics: http://www.rootstrikers.org/

2) Please watch my recent TED talk, titled "We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim" -- and help push it over one million views: http://www.ted.com/talks/lawrence_lessig_we_the_people_and_the_republic_we_must_reclaim.html

3) Donate to Demand Progress/Rootstrikers so we can hit the ground running and add new energy to the fight for money-in-politics reform.

http://www.demandprogress.org/donate/

4) Pay what you want for Demand Progress's book Hacking Politics (to which I contributed) about the effort to defeat SOPA:

http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/hacking-politics-2/

Q:

I see money in politics being a "chicken and the egg" problem. The legislators who would have to pass the law getting money out of politics are the legislators who got in place by being good gaming the "money in politics" system.

How the heck do you even START to address a problem this deeploy rooted? I imagine you acknowledge this issue, since the name of your organization is "root strikers." Is there a practical step beyond "awareness" that can be taken?

A:

Awareness is the gasoline. Spread it broadly, and a tiny spark can ignite change. (Hey, not so bad for on the fly...) And look at states where a similar change was made: Activists in Connecticut spent years pushing that issue, spreading awareness. And when the governor was convicted for corruption, change happened.


Q:

Professor Lessig, Thanks for doing this AMA. I have two questions:

How have your clerkships with Posner and Scalia, respectively, shaped your worldview?

Has anything really changed since US v. Microsoft? and how?

Thanks again!

A:

Posner was the most important person (after my dad) in my life. He showed me the life of someone not afraid to be hated. That's key. Scalia deeply queered my theorizing about constitutional law. I am, like he is, an originalist, but he wouldn't likely think so.

And re Microsoft: Those guys are NICE TO ME now. It's really cool. (Ok, not really that cool but it's really different).


Q:

Do you believe it is possible to keep money out of politics in a way that is consistent with our first amendment rights? If I were a billionaire who really felt strongly about a particular candidate, shouldn't I be allowed to put up billboards, do TV and radio spots, etc? Is there a way to reconcile the personal freedom to support a candidate granted by the constitution with the desire to remove the political-favors-for-campaign-dollars loop?

A:

GREAT QUESTION because it surfaces a confusion that is rife within this field. The problem (imho) is not the money. The problem is the fundraising. I don't care if the Koch brothers or Soros spend their money to promote one candidate or another. I care about members of Congress spending 30%-70% of their time raising money from .05% of us. Change the way we fund elections and you change the corruption. We won't utopia, of course, but we will have a gov't "free," as my buddy, Buddy Roemer put it, "free to lead."


Q:

Can anything meaningful change without a constitutional amendment to overturn Buckley v Valeo?

A:

Yes, absolutely. Independent expenditures are a problem, but they are not THE problem. The problem is the way we fund campaigns. We could change that tomorrow with a statute — either vouchers or small dollar funded matching systems. Anything that gives Members a reason to pay attention to all of us and not just the .05% who are the relevant funders of campaigns would be "meaningful change."


Q:

Why are you focused on the Federal government (where Rootstrikers is going to find a difficult path to success) instead of state and local ones?

A:

We pivoted from "Fix Congress First!" to "Rootstrikers" to encourage a focus on money at all levels. But I do believe we don't have the time to fix this from the state level up. We need to fix it at the federal level, or we're fracked.


Q:

You advocate in your book that congressmen should be paid much more than what they are right now (about $175,000/year). How much do you think they should be paid to make them lose the incentive to become a lobbyist? Does 250-300k sound better?

A:

Oh please don't out me on this. Ok, but DON'T TELL ANYONE I SAID THIS: They are lawmakers. Why aren't they paid as much as a first year partner at a DC firm? In Singapore, gov't ministers get paid $1 million a year. Where is corruption in Singapore. NO-where.


Q:

How do you and Rootstrikers decide to spend your time? Between TED talks, direct contact with lawmakers, etc, what factors are used to determine where is best to invest your time in making a change in corruption (i.e. campaign finance)?

A:

I spend as little time with lawmakers as possible. Many are great. And more than you expect want real change. But they're not going to do anything till we, the outsiders, force them to adopt it. So I spend WAY TOO MUCH time on the road, trying to bring people into the movement. The TED talk was a real gift — it would have taken many many frequent flyer miles to speak to 1 million people.


Q:

What do you think the odds are we'll see a constitutional convention in the next 30 years?

A:

25%


Q:

I keep hearing about all these things our government is doing that I do not agree with. As an average U.S. citizen what are some things I can do to make a difference?

A: 1: recognize the root: politic$ 2: join groups spreading that recognition. (like, say, http://rootstrikers.org) 3: stand ready to engage when a plausible strategy is in play.

Q:

What is your best extremely-short-form explanation of the corruption in Congress and easy-to-understand remedy?

While it's easy to post a link to your videos and / or quotes from your book on social networking sites, I have found it difficult to succinctly explain the problem and the proffered solution to people in "old school" social situations.

Usually I see their eyes glass over right about the time I bring up the gift economy...

Thanks for your fantastic work bringing this issue to the attention of the people.

A:

here's what we need: a 30 second you tube video of some guy at a party constantly checking out everyone else at the party, while he pretends to be speaking to the other person. We're the other person. The guy are the politicians. And the distraction is the corruption: We need a Congress that can afford to talk to us. For at least one drink or so.


Q:

I'm a huge fan of your work, and "Republic, Lost" convinced me that ending corruption through campaign finance reform is Issue #1 in American politics today. In your opinion, what will real reform look like when we finally achieve it? How will we get from the "awareness" phase to a point where actual Congresspersons feel pressure to enact anti-corruption laws?

A:

I'm conspiring with a bunch of people to kickstart a money bomb big enough to make change likely — people at the top (the super rich) and at every level on the way down. I think something like that will be essential.

We're also starting in the fall something called "the New Hampshire Project" — to send speakers into New Hampshire to remind that great state about their really great judgment on this issue, and about how every presidential candidate coming through needs to say something about how they will end corruption.


Q:

Thoughts on Snowden and the NSA leaks? Do you see similarities in how he is being treated by gov and Aaron?

A:

similarities, sure. The underlying alleged wrong is radically different. But the reactions are analogous — and I fear will be equally as counter productive.


Q:

One thing that always frustrates me is that I've following the idea of #rootstrikers since I first heard of it which now seems like several years. It doesn't seem to me that anything has been accomplished.

So my question is, what would you consider big wins for this type of organization that you've had, and where is it going? It's hard to not be 'fuck it, we're doomed' as I'm not seeing anything work.

A:

You got to look at the nature of the problem. Some problems don't get fix in a year, or in 140 characters. This is at the top of that some problems list. So I'm very encouraged by the number of people picking up this issue, and the number interested in doing something about it. 5 years ago, a TED talk about corruption would not have gotten 1 million view in a couple months. It does now because many are pushing the issue, and increasingly successfully.

But there is A LONG way to go. Or else, we need a BIG (political) FORCE to get there. Either way, we will.


Q:

In addition to taking the actions Lessig suggests, please consider joining us on /r/rootstrikers.

Dr. Lessig, thank you for all that you do!

A:

Thanks, but Lessig is fine. The only "doctorates" I have are honorary (but SUPER cool!)


Q:

What's your big push now?

A Constitutional amendment? Opt-in public financing of elections?

What's your strategy? What are you key tactics?

A:

I support an amendment, but the real work and real opportunity for change is from citizen-funded elections: bottom up, small dollar funding systems that force candidates to appeal to everyone to raise the money for their campaigns, and not just from the .05%.


Q:

If you could draft a bill that would be guaranteed to pass, what would it say?

PS- You are the man. Keep it up.

A:

The best and most ambitious bill we've got right now is the American Anti-Corruption Act (think AA Act). Check it out at http://represent.us.


Q:

What books and authors and blogs do you read?

A:

I go in spurts on books — deep into the depressing world of economics now. just finished David Stockman's book, now reading Stephen King's "When the money runs out" (it's a horror story but it's not that Stephen King). And re blogs: I skip around but am increasingly twitter, G+ driven. The only regular read I've had over the past 15 years or so is /.


Q:

How can we bring this awareness of corruption and political activism to college campuses?

Youth, who have the passion, time, and naivete to actually move change; who have the energy and the necessary lack of roots to protest against the system, how can we involve the American youth in the political process like we see in many other countries in the world?

Surely most would be against the corrupting power of money in politics, especially when the realization that their opinions and values are crushed by those with deeper pockets.

Would be delighted to hear your opinion. (And go Demand Progress!)

A:

I want to do a tour with Jack Abramoff. He's wicked smart (and no longer wicked.) Maybe we can kickstart that?


Q:

Do you think that someone, like yourself, who works as a Harvard professor can be objectively critical enough of the current economic/financial/political system or does working in academia cause you to self-censor your opinions?

A:

Great and fair question. The key is to follow the money. I get a fixed salary, I don't raise money, I am not consulting or getting paid to make anyone happy, and NEVER has anyone at Harvard or anywhere else every suggested I tone it down. Not everyone has my freedom, but that's why I think I should be doing something about this.


Q:

How successful have you been at getting "conservatives," as they are popularly known, and economic libertarians to join rootstrikers? What messages connect with people who think the free market solves all the world's ills?

A:

The reviews of Republic Lost I've been most proud of have all been by "conservatives" or "libertarians." I worked hard to earn that, but I don't think it's actually very hard to convince people on the right. Impossible to convince Beltway Republicans, of course, but it's also hard to get Beltway Democrats to do anything Bold (just ask the PCCC how hard they've had to push to get the Dem caucus to get behind real reform). But anyone who cares about "crony capitalism" (in the way everyone cares about cancer) gets what this movement is about. And if we learn to talk in a way that doesn't send them screaming, we might be able to build a movement that ties both together.


Q:

Prof Lessig. Don't know if you've seen OpenSecrets work on dark money, but I have a quiestion about futility.

Consider a few things

-- A while back, OpenSecrets reported that $10 million essentially vanished in transactions among a set of groups run by the same people, but nothing appears to have happened to the group that was underreporting: http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2013/04/american-commitments-missing-millions.html

-- In another instance, a set of Delaware corporations received grants from a massive c4. Turns out most of these were "disregarded entities" of groups like Americans for Prosperity, but using the Delaware corps made the grants almost impossible to track: http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2012/12/nonprofit-funneled-money-to-kochs-voter-database-effort-other-conservative-groups.html

-- A set of Liberal groups that are essentially mailboxes full of money repeatedly shut down and restarted immediately, making it nearly impossible for oversight by the IRS: http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2013/05/shape-shifting-by-liberal-dark-mone.html

The question is this: with the endless loopholes for tax-exempt groups, is there any chance of disclosure without major changes (which are impossible in this climate)?

A:

Disclosure is good. Disclosure is needed. Disclosure is not a solution to anything. So I'm a HUGE fan of the great people in the transparency movement — CRP, Sunlight, Maplight. But we need to build on what they've done and take the next step: change the way we fund elections.


Q:

North Carolina State Director of Wolf-PAC here,

I have been asked several times how removing the influence of money from politics as it stands now will address the problem of the revolving door/farm system which leads to so much career-oriented corruption. I have my answers but, truth be told, they aren't that good. Do you have anything to say to that sort of question/objection?

A:

change the way you fund elections and you RADICALLY change the economy of K St. Most interesting statistic in my book: The average salary of a staffer in (circa) 1972 was the same as the average staffer of a lobbyist. If we could back to something close to that, you won't need to worry much about revolving doors.


Q:

No question, just wanted to say thank you, and to keep doing what you're doing, especially on campaign finance.

Edit: Spelling

A:

thanks. but I'm Stallmanesque about the word "campaign finance": let's call it "corruption"


Q:

As money influences elections, what would be the cost to recall elected official who presided over illegal government activity, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein on the Intelligence Community responsible for the NSA?

A:

There's no recall for a Senator, and I suspect she's not running again.


Q:

Hi Mr. Lessig. Big fan. I actually just starter re-listening to Republic Lost on my commute this morning. My question: what tactics/arguments have been successful for you in pointing out corruption in one's own party. I think a lot of people have the response of, "yes, government is corrupt, that's why we need more of my team in charge, because they get it."

A:

that's the hardest thing, because no one likes a "traitor": But I think this has got to be the discipline of this movement. WE do it just like YOU do it, so WE ALL need to fix it, now.

I certainly think Democrats are as guilty in the money game as Republicans (and the grotesque pandering to Wall Street described here makes me sick: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/23/the-roots-of-the-next-financial-crisis-how-wall-street-undermines-reform.html )

But here is one reason to be proud as a Democrat: Only the Democrats have even begun to discuss reforms that would fix the problem. They're no where close yet, but still, they've taken a first step.


Q:

What do you think about the need to reform the nations media? Specifically do you have any suggestions about using public broadcasting to make the election campaign process more democratic? Have you read John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney's latest book Dollarocracy?

A:

IN the middle of Dollarocracy and loving it. I don't think this Court will let us get away with much reform focused exclusively on public broadcasting. But we need to find a way back to a more independent journalism, of course. Their other book was really good in this regard: The Death and Life of Journalism.


Q:

First off, thanks for the work you do.

Proponents of campaign finance reform (edit: guess I should call this anti-corruption reform) such as myself often hear a few arguments repeated by opponents of such measures. One is that we're seeking to "abridge the First Amendment." Another that I've heard of late is we should have "a free market of ideas." How do you typically respond to criticisms like these? I'd like some ammunition.

A:

There are people focused on limiting the right of people (and the "rights" of corporations) (not people) to speak. I think that's an ultimately unhelpful way to attack this problem. The problem is not the speech. The problem is the fundraising. So let's fundraise in a way that isn't corrupting — by giving citizens, e.g., $50 vouchers to fund campaigns (which would produce 3x the total spent in 2012). That solution produces MORE speech, not less. It has nothing to do with "abridging" free speech.


Q:

Thx for all you've done. I've found in local politics that the "perfect dictatorship" relies on nonprofits where activists are essentially bribed with fulltime jobs doing something remotely beneficial so long as they run interference from the left for corrupt power. How do we get a clear shot at power under these circumstances?

A:

Revolving doors are the death. Everywhere. They create the permanent inability to upset others. We need to encourage people to stay clear of them, in lots of way, some popular ("JUST SAY NO"), some not (paying gov't officials better).


Q:

Thoughts on the IRS "scandal"? Shouldn't they be applying more scrutiny and actually denying 501 status to these organizations and making them register as 527s?

A:

They should impose 527 transparency requirement on all C4s, and then much of this problem would go away.


Q:

When did you last eat ice cream? When did you first eat ice cream? When do you plan to eat ice cream again?

A:

you're from Big Sugar, aren't you.


Q:

Mr. Lessig, I watched an interview you did recently with Bill Moyers and it was extremely interesting and enlightening.

I would only like to thank you for that. And to say that I wish you were more public.

A:

120 nights away from home last year: feels pretty damn public to me! (Thanks for the kind words).


Q:

The Patriot Act, War on Terror (et al) has obviously influenced the political landscape. My Senator Feinstein is one example who's campaigns are funded by drones, tanks, submarines and other weapon systems. Which is undoubtably influencing her rhetoric (as well as others) on 'security'. http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/summary.php?cid=N00007364&cycle=2012

1) Can you speak to the corrupting influence of money on the war on terror.

2) Many of these companies are forecasting 'windfall growth' in their annual reports during the next 5 years because these systems will be sold domestically. Do you see the public becoming more interested in corruption with this future "urban militarization" or more intimidated?

A:

Just recall Eisenhower's original wording: The Military-Industrial-Congressional complex, and you'll have a clue to the answer.


Q:

Hi. I'm a journalist and I was wondering if you have any advice for journalists trying to report on this issue. I feel like it's a very hard issue to report on because people typically don't care. Readers either feel helpless to change the status quo so the stories just all blend together and have no meaning, or the story is so complicated to explain that few people bother to read it or don't understand it (ie. basically every campaign finance story ever). I'm not taking the pessimistic view of readers, but I feel like it's a case of people having other things to worry about in their life, and since this feels unchangeable, why care what the news reports on this?

A:

focus on what people don't understand: how it could be fixed. there is still the illusion that if we could declare corporations are not people or that money is not speech, all would be solved. Regardless of the good in those ideas, it wouldn't.

[and man I can't believe I am ONE HOUR behind questions. I'm sorry. I'm typing as fast as I can.]


Q:

Why is international capital out to exterminate the human race?

A:

don't credit them with intentionality. the tiger isn't trying to kill anyone. its just trying to eat.


Q:

How do you feel about voting for Obama now?

A:

I have no trouble with my vote. It was my faith that he was a reformer that I am troubled by. Indeed, humbled by. I obviously didn't know squat.